What in Greek was called epiphaniea meant the appearance, the arrival of a divinity among mortals . . . Epiphany thus interrupts the everyday flow of time and enters as one privileged moment when we intuitively grasp a deeper, more essential reality hidden in things and persons. — Czeslaw Milosz, A Book of Luminous Things
In Saul Bellow’s Henderson the Rain King, the blustering, bumbling, red-faced, and violently suffering protagonist, confides to us that, “when things got very bad I often looked into books to see whether I could find some helpful words, and one day I read, ‘The forgiveness of sins is perpetual and righteousness first is not required.’ This impressed me so deeply that I went around saying it to myself.”
This is an insight that arrives unexpectedly, cracking open his hard and aching heart, and setting him on a picaresque journey of self-discovery to Africa, where he learns humility and wisdom — and where he finally feels that his spirit is no longer slave to his body. It’s an epiphany, a moment when he understands his reality in a way that he never could have before.
It is reminiscent of another story, one that Jesus told, in which a young man, impatient and strident in his demands, took his inheritance and left for a far country, breaking his father’s heart and setting ablaze a fire of resentment in his older brother. Later, after his money has burned up in moments of profligacy that have begun to blur and fade, he takes whatever work he can to sustain himself. One day, while mucking out the pig pen of a farmer outside the city, he “comes to himself,” a telling phrase that both reveals the split within himself as well as the potential of reintegration. It’s an epiphany that wells up within him while he is up to his knees in pigs, proving that a life-transforming moment can break in on us, no matter where we find ourselves.
Czeslaw Milosz calls an epiphany “an unveiling of reality” in his international anthology of poetry, A Book of Luminous Things. He writes of ancient cultures in which streams were inhabited by the naiads and forests by the dryads, and the gods sometimes walked among humans. “Not rarely, they would visit households and were recognized by hosts.” Abraham entertains God in the guise of three travelers and later, “the epiphany as appearance, the arrival of Christ, occupies an important place in the New Testament.”
We are living, says Milosz, in a world that has been deprived of clear-cut outlines and has been drained of color. This deprivation is not much helped, he continues, by theology, science, and philosophy. While they try to provide cures for nihilism, they are not usually effective, and instead, give us descriptions that simply confirm our condition.
Poetry, however, looks at the singular rather than the general; it focuses on the leaf, not the forest, and thus it cannot help but see the variations, the diversity, the abundance of throbbing, colorful life. A poem, by describing a particular moment of present reality, illuminates the human experience and brings the divine into the mundane. A poem bears epiphanies.
Epiphany, from a Greek word for ‘manifestation’ or ‘appearance’, is for Christians the season after Advent and Christmas in which we celebrate the unveiling—just for a moment—of the divine nature of Christ, that moment in which a young Jewish carpenter arises from baptism in the waters of the River Jordan, as the heavens split open above him and the voice of God declares him to be his beloved son.
It is just a breath, a heart’s beat, a hummingbird’s jeweled flash of winged light, a disturbance in the space-time continuum, but it is gratefully grasped by Jesus. John the Baptist hears it too; they share a look between them, John all fire and sword and Jesus with a muscular tenderness.
We who watch from the riverbank twenty-one centuries later may only hear thunder in a cloudless sky and shrug:
“Endless invention, endless experiment,
Brings knowledge of motion, but not of stillness;
Knowledge of speech, but not of silence;
Knowledge of words, and ignorance of the Word.”1
John, with his fierce, hooded, hawk’s eyes, understands the moment: it reverberates in his chest like a bell. This is the moment he has prepared for all his life; it is here now, and he gives himself to it without hesitation. John had disciples, followers, people who revered him and did not shrink from his shouts into the desert wind. ‘He must increase, and I must decrease,’ he thinks. A gate, sensed but hidden, swings open behind his eyes and he steps through and knows somehow, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that he will not live to see this King crowned.
It is innocence that is full and experience
that is empty.
It is innocence that wins and experience that loses.
It is innocence that is young and experience that
It is innocence that grows and experience that
You wonder if these epiphanies can be prepared for. If they add to the quality of life, then shouldn’t we figure out a way to generate them? Yet, they come when we need them and not before. They are gifts and as gifts, we accept them or misuse them. But, faith, like poetry, cannot be duplicated: every experience is a new reading of meaning.
“If we could get the hang of it entirely
It would take too long;
All we know is the splash of words in passing
And falling twigs of song,
And when we try to eavesdrop on the great
Presences it is rarely
That by a stroke of luck we can appropriate
Even a phrase entirely.”3
Milosz shows us that epiphanies are the inbreaking of the divine in unexpected ways and places. They are ‘aha’ moments, flashes of intuition that reveal an eternity in a grain of sand. Poems may carry epiphanies for us, Nature may as well. We learn to see with our hearts as well as with our heads.
“Cease to dwell on days gone by
and to brood over past history.
Here and now I will do a new thing;
this moment it will break from the bud.
Can you not perceive it?” (Isa. 43: 18,19)
The season of Epiphany is also a time to reflect on the experience of the magi, the travelers from another land, who searched with mind and heart for the Christ child, leaving behind their familiar ways and traditions for something or someone they could not be sure would accept them.
Thus, it is a season to reflect on and seek out what unifies all Christians. Michael Mayne, the former dean of Westminster, wrote in Responding to the Light, “We Christians are as diverse and varied as the colors of the rainbow . . . Though at one level we are divided and have been divided by history into our separate traditions, yet there is a deeper truth, for those with eyes to see . . . All who believe that in Jesus we see God and put their faith in him are at the deepest level already one in Christ4
An epiphany is a manifestation, an appearance, perhaps of something that was always there but overlooked or excluded out of habit and tradition, brushed aside in our haste—only to become, when revealed, so compelling that we can’t take our eyes off it.
That which changes us from the inside may be the outside seen through new eyes.
- Eliot, T. S. Choruses from ‘The Rock’ 1, Collected Poems 1909-1962. Harcourt, 1963.
- Péguy, Charles. “Innocence and Experience,” God Speaks. Trans. by Julian Green. Pantheon, 1943.
- MacNeice, Louis. ‘Entirely’, Collected Poems. Faber, 2007, p. 171.
- Mayne, Michael. Responding to the Light. Canterbury Press, 2017, pp. 87-88.
Photo: Joel Valve, Unsplash.com